In reading and listening to the range of arguments surrounding many of the current political and social issues, I am struck by the lack of a singular concept which seems to be either naively missing or purposely tossed aside in these discussions. What was once central to any debate involving our national consciousness is vaporizing. What seems to be missing is the classic idea as to what it means to be a person, and specifically how this directly applies to life in American society at large, our relationship to each other and the function of government.
A person is a special kind of being. Unlike other living things, persons are unique in that they possess certain rights which are not attributed to, nor presumptive of, non-persons. Throughout history and especially since the 16th century, persons are considered to possess intrinsic “natural” rights – rights granted by virtue of simply being persons. The Declaration of Independence succinctly describes these as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. John Locke, a British philosopher from whom the Founding Fathers derived much of their political theory, lists the three basic natural rights of all persons as life, liberty and property.
The right to life is prima facie a first right, a fundamental expression of all other rights. To violate ones right to life – to exist - is to make meaningless all other rights. The right to life, therefore, is pre-eminent above all other rights of persons since without it no other rights are possible. Expressed another way, if one’s right to life is violated, then all other rights are also violated.
The right of liberty – what we mean when we say freedom – is the right to order one’s life and govern one’s affairs within the context of personal choice. Liberty is not the freedom to do “whatever you want, whenever you want”. The right of liberty within a social structure carries with it an implied responsibility that each member will exercise their freedom in a manner that does not infringe the rights of life, liberty and property of other persons. Our right of liberty embraces those ideas enumerated in the Bill of Rights – speech, a free press and religion – as well as other rights of liberty implied but not specified.
Property rights are those which involve not only land and buildings, but all material objects which rightly belong solely to the individual, including most importantly their own body. From our property rights we derive our right to privacy and due process, among others.
Because each person possesses these intrinsic natural rights, a moral obligation concerning rights and duties exists between persons. This moral obligation implies that each individual recognizes the rights of the other as being identical to their own. If my status as a person grants me a right to life, liberty and property, then I must acknowledge that every other person also has the right to life, liberty and property. Because the value of each person’s rights are equivalent, this moral obligation demands that I refrain from treating other persons as objects for my own benefit and a duty to respond to persons as ends-in-themselves. As Immanuel Kant, whose seminal work on the ethics of duty, summarizes:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
In other words, since the rights of every person when placed on the scale of value weighs exactly the same as every other person, we are constrained in our dealings with one another to respect each person as regards these intrinsic rights with the same diligence that we expect ourselves to be respected. When we fail to do that, we jeopardize the free exercise of our own rights.
Finally, these rights are unalienable, which is to say that a person’s rights may not be arbitrarily taken from them without their consent. The Declaration of Independence is unambiguous in its assertion that “we hold these truths to be self-evident… that we are endowed… with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Considered as a whole, the rights of persons are unshakably powerful and compelling and have formed the bedrock of how we view ourselves, our relationship to each other and the role of government within the larger society for centuries.
Of utmost importance, we must recognize that the rights inherent by virtue of being persons are “natural” rights. No person has to earn these rights. They exist simply because persons living in a common community exist. None of these rights are granted by a government, nor are they acquired by association with a particular social or religious group. While we may feel privileged to be Americans, our intrinsic rights are not privileges bestowed upon us by our government because of our status as citizens, nor should we desire such an arrangement even if it were possible. No government can grant individual rights. Governments should derive their powers – we might say governments derive their rights - from the consent of the governed, not the other way around. No form of government has a mechanism to confer rights upon any person. Governments are primarily instituted to protect rights of persons, not bestow them. Governments whose authority supersedes those of its members may grant privileges (but never rights) to some or all of those under its sway, or may hinder or prohibit the exercise of rights (as all governments will tend to do), but it is impossible for persons to derive their rights from an established government. And we should not desire such an arrangement even if it were possible, since it would in essence grant privileges, not rights, and by doing so, undermine and corrupt the very essence of what it means to live in a society of free persons.
This is what disturbs me when I read or listen to much of current rhetoric - that we are forgetting or forgoing the principles – the groundwork - that define the unique kind of beings we are. Regardless of our position on any political, religious or social issue, to the extent that we fail to recognize or consider first the fundamental rights of persons as they apply to ourselves and to all other persons or minimize their worth, or assign authority or control of the natural rights of persons to other than the individual who owns them, we corrode the core values that make being a person the unique and special station that it is.